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Indonesia's vote: 3 takeaways for climate change

New York Times - February 15, 2024

New York – Coal, nickel, palm oil, rainforests. The riches of Indonesia matter to the rest of the world. Therefore, so does its presidential election.

Early results in the world's third-largest democracy signalled the victory of Mr Prabowo Subianto, a former army general, as the country's next president. The new government's approach on the management of its natural resources could have a significant effect on the world's ability to keep global warming to relatively safe levels.

Environmentalists are also watching what the vote might mean for their ability to operate freely.

Indonesia is the world's largest exporter of coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel and something that the world must quickly stop burning in order to avoid the worst consequences of global warming. But Indonesia also has huge reserves of nickel, which is critical to battery-making and the transition to cleaner energy.

Mr Prabowo has said that he supports transitioning the country away from coal power, though gradually. He also supports a ban on exports of raw nickel, designed to encourage a home-grown battery-making industry, that has been in place for several years.

Those two initiatives clash. Processing nickel requires vast amounts of energy. So, Indonesia has been building new coal power plants. That, in turn, has driven up Indonesia's emissions of planet-warming greenhouse gases.

Mr Prabowo has cast himself as a candidate who would largely continue the policies of the departing president, Mr Joko Widodo, whose administration imposed the nickel export ban.

Indonesia's global climate role is important in another way. The country has vast stretches of forest that are vital to the effort to slow global warming because they pull so much planet-warming carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

However, Indonesia is also the largest exporter of palm oil, which is used in a range of everyday products including soap and ice cream, and the production of palm oil has led to severe deforestation in recent decades. While deforestation rates have slowed lately, Mr Prabowo's promises to produce more biofuels could quickly reverse those gains.

In short, what happens in Indonesia doesn't stay in Indonesia.

1. It's doubling down on coal

Indonesia is a huge exporter of coal, with China its main buyer. Coal is also critical to domestic energy: It supplies the single-largest share of Indonesia's electricity.

Indonesia is part of a US$20 billion (S$27 billion) global agreement, led by the United States, to retire some of its coal-burning power plants earlier than planned. That agreement, called the Just Energy Transition Partnership, has not resulted in any specific plans to close coal plants yet.

In fact, despite the coal transition agreement, Indonesia's coal fleet is expanding. Indonesia's emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) soared by more than 20 per cent in 2022, the most recent year for which data is available, according to Climate Action Tracker, an independent organisation that rates country-level emissions targets. It assessed Indonesia's climate targets to be "critically insufficient".

2. Nickel makes it a new-energy powerhouse

Mr Widodo's administration cast Indonesia as central to the global transition to electric vehicles. By banning the export of nickel ore, critical for electric-vehicle batteries, he pushed international companies to invest in processing nickel in the country.

China obliged. Chinese company Tsingshan set up factories to process nickel ore so it could be turned into electric-vehicle batteries as well as other products like stainless steel. But that is driving up coal power.

With Chinese support, Indonesia is building a fleet of new coal-burning power plants to supply its booming nickel processing facilities. Processed nickel is more lucrative than nickel ore, though it brings a host of social and environmental risks.

A recent report by the non-profit research and advocacy group Climate Rights International found that nickel mining and processing units had violated the rights of indigenous communities and caused water and air pollution.

Mr Prabowo, on the campaign trail, said he would continue the mineral export ban. S&P Global, a company that analyses trends in commodities, said the ban would "likely remain largely unchanged".

3. Biofuels raise deforestation worries

Indonesia is already the world's largest exporter of palm oil. Mr Prabowo has proposed setting up a separate palm oil ministry.

He campaigned to expand production of biofuels from crops including palm oil, cassava and sugar cane. Environmentalists worry that a push for biofuels could lead to deforestation, reversing the gains that Indonesia had made in protecting its rich forests.

Mr Prabowo, the current defence minister, was removed from the army after he was linked to the kidnapping of political dissidents. His record on rights has raised concerns among climate activists. During the campaign, he dismissed such questions. He has never been charged in a court of law.

Should he be the final winner of the Feb 14 election, said Mr Firdaus Cahyadi, a campaigner for 350.org, which supports action on global warming, "it will make it difficult for civil society movements in Indonesia, including the environmental and climate movements".

Source: https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/se-asia/indonesia-s-vote-3-takeaways-for-climate-chang